Male cancers associated with HPV
Reviewed by our clinical team
The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a really common group of viruses that usually doesn't cause any issues. However, some types of this virus can cause genital warts or certain cancers. These types of HPV can be passed on during vaginal, anal, or oral sex, when using sex toys, or simply through intimate touching.
There are over 100 different types (or strains) of HPV and most are harmless and don’t cause symptoms – in fact, your body will probably clear the virus without you ever knowing you were infected. However, a small number of HPV strains are considered “high-risk” because they can lead to cell changes that can cause certain cancers.
If you’re a sexually active man, it’s worth being aware that some high-risk HPV strains, including types 16 and 18, can occasionally lead to cancers of the penis, anus, and head and neck.
Women will be checked for HPV at their cervical screening (smear tests). Cervical cancer is usually caused by high-risk types of HPV, but screening for HPV in men is currently limited to some sexual health clinics. This is why it’s important to get any new symptoms checked out.
Penile cancer is a cancer that affects the foreskin and tip of the penis. It’s most common in men over 50, and about 60% of cases are thought to be caused by high-risk HPV.
Wearing condoms reduces your chances of getting penile cancer- this is because putting on a condom reduces your risk of getting HPV.
Signs of penile cancer include:
- A growth or sore on the foreskin or tip of the penis
- A rash on the penis
- Bleeding from the penis
- Bleeding under the foreskin
- Discharge from the penis with an unpleasant smell
- Thickened skin on the penis – this may make it difficult to pull the foreskin back
- A change in the colour of the skin on your penis
Other symptoms include a lump felt in the groin, stomach pain, unexplained weight loss, and feeling very tired.
Anal cancer can affect men and women, and in 91% of UK cases, the cause is high-risk HPV. Anal cancer is believed to be more common in people who have anal sex, and as a result is more likely to occur in men who have sex with men.
Signs of anal cancer include:
- Bleeding from your anus
- Pain and itching around your anus
- Small lumps felt around and inside your anus
- Discharge of mucus from your anus
- Incontinence i.e. having trouble controlling your bowels
- Needing to go to the toilet more often, and having looser, runnier poos
Cancers of the head and neck
Cancers of the head and neck are those affecting the mouth, lips, tongue, voice box, or throat. They are related to HPV transmitted during oral sex rather than vaginal or anal sex.
The type most commonly linked to HPV is oropharyngeal cancer – this affects the area of the throat just behind the mouth. In Europe, 73% of oropharyngeal cancer cases occur in people who have high-risk HPV.
Cancers of the head and neck are more common in people with a higher number of sexual partners, and people who started having sex at a younger age. They’re also more common in men who have sex with men.
Signs of mouth and throat cancer include:
- Ulcers in the mouth that won’t heal
- Pain or discomfort in the mouth
- Red or white patches in the mouth or throat
- Problems swallowing or speaking
- A lump in the neck
- Bad breath
- Weight loss
You might also notice a lump or thickened or white patches on your lip, in your mouth, or throat, or unusual bleeding or numbness in the area. Other symptoms include losing teeth and difficulty moving your jaw.
How to avoid HPV
HPV is really easily passed on, so it’s not always easy to avoid. The good news is, most people who get HPV won’t experience any problems, as most strains are harmless. Even if you do contract a high-risk strain, this doesn’t automatically mean that that you’ll get cancer – it just means you have an increased risk.
If you are concerned, just make sure you practise safe sex. Remember: you can catch high-risk HPV from vaginal, anal, and oral sex, sharing sex toys, and skin-to-skin contact with your partner’s genitals.
It’s always best to use condoms if you’re having sex with a new or casual partner, even during oral sex. In addition to condoms, you can try using dental dams for oral sex – these are thin, soft squares of plastic that can be put over the vagina or anus.
Just remember: condoms and dental dams can’t provide 100% protection against HPV, so if you notice any new symptoms, it’s always best to get them checked out.
Get the HPV vaccine
If you’re a man who missed out on the HPV vaccine in school, and you’re under the age of 25, you can get it free on the NHS. You’ll also be eligible for a free vaccine if you’re a man who has sex with other men, and you’re 45 or younger.
If you’re not eligible for a free vaccine, you can order one through Online Doctor. We offer Gardasil 9, which protects against nine different high-risk strains of HPV. Order online and you can pop into your nearest LloydsPharmacy to receive your injections. Visit our online HPV vaccination clinic to learn more.